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Abatis in front of the Union trench lines at Petersburg in 1865 (Library of Congress)

Abatis (abattis, abbattis):  A defensive fortification or obstacle formed from  a line of trees cut down and laid with their branches towards the enemy.  Used to slow an enemy advance and keep them under fire.

Abolitionism / Abolitionist:  Abolitionism was the historical movement to end the African and Indian slave trade and set the slaves free. Someone who desired to abolish slavery was called an abolitionist.

Aide-de-camp:  A soldier who is the personal assistant of a high-ranking officer.

Ambulance:  Two- or four-wheeled cart  for transporting the wounded and sick.

Ambush:  To lie in secret and give an unexpected attack on the enemy.

Antebellum:  Term used to describe the pre-Civil War period.

Armory:  A manufactory of arms and military supplies.

Army:  The largest organizational unit of a land-based military branch in service to a country.  An army is further divided into corps.

Arsenal:  A storage facility for arms and military supplies.

Artillery:  Large caliber weapons; a branch of the army which primarily used cannons.


Barbette:  A defensive structure build around artillery pieces to protect the crew and still allow the artillery to fire.

Drawing of a bastion by Pearson Scott Foresman

Drawing of a bastion by Pearson Scott Foresman

Barque (sometimes spelled barc and, particularly in the U.S., bark):  A type of sailing vessel with three or more masts, the foremasts rigged square and only the aftermast rigged fore-and-aft. Barques were the workhorse of the mid-19th century as they attained passages that nearly matched full rigged ships but could operate with smaller crews.

Bastion:  An angular structure projecting outward from the curtain wall of an artillery fortification. The fully developed bastion consists of two faces and two flanks with fire from the flanks being able to protect the curtain wall and also the adjacent bastions.

Battery:  The basic unit of an artillery regiment, comparable to a company of infantry.  Also the battlefield location of artillery.

Bayonet:  A metal blade attached to the end of a gun to be used in melee combat like a spear.

bbls:  Abbreviation for “barrels,” usually as a unit of measure.  Dry barrels, fluid barrels, and oil barrels can have different volumes.  A barrel of wheat flour can hold three bushels, and a barrel of cornmeal can be 200 pounds.  Today, the term “drum” is used almost interchangeably with “barrel.”

Bedroll:  Blanket or bedding rolled up to be carried and used by soldiers for sleeping.  Sometimes personal belongings would be included inside of a bedroll.

Bivouac:  Temporary encampment with no proper shelter.

Blockade:  Naval tactic used to prevent or block ships from entering or leaving enemy ports.

Border States:  The states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, which remained in the Union despite much popular support for the Confederacy.

Brandreth’s Pills:  Benjamin Brandreth ran a patent medicine business that had been started by his grandfather, William Brandreth, in the 1820s. Brandreth’s “Vegetable Universal Pill” was a powerful cathartic and played off the popular notion that impurity of the blood was the source of many ills.  in the 1820s. Benjamin Brandreth pioneered the use of advertising with testimonials about the effectiveness of the pills’ treatment of the blood impurities.

Breach:  A large gap in a fortification caused by artillery or mines, exposing the inside to assault.

Breastworks:  Breast-height defensive fortifications, often thrown up quickly, used to protect soldiers from enemy fire.

Breech-loading:  Firearms that can be loaded from the breech in between the barrel and the stock.  This allowed for faster reload rates than muzzle-loaded firearms.

Brevet:  An honorary military promotion for meritorious action with no increase in pay, power, or responsibility.   Many officers received brevet brigadier generalships at the close of the Civil War.  Those who remained in the service of the U.S. Army after the War reverted to their former ranks.

Brigade:  Organizational military unit, a subsection of a division.  One brigade usually consisted of about four-thousand soldiers in four to six regiments.

Brogan:  A leather shoe, similar to an ankle-high boot, issued to soldiers during the Civil War.

Bully (adj.):  To express praise when the approval or praise is not sincere.

Burthen:  We have seen two different uses of this word in our blog posts.  It was a now-archaic form of “burden,” as in a heavy backpack is a burden/burthen.  It also is a volumetric measurement of cubic capacity used to estimate the tonnage of a ship based on length and maximum beam. It is expressed in “tons burden” today, but in Civil War times it was “tons of burthen.”


Cassion:  Two-wheeled cart, attached to a limber and pulled by a team of horses, that carried supplies and ammunition for artillery.

Caliber:  Interior diameter of a gun barrel, measured in thousands of an inch or millimeters.

Campaign:  A series of military operations that form a distinct phase of the War, such as the Atlanta Campaign, the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Canister:  A projectile, shot from a cannon, filled with about 35 iron balls the size of marbles that scattered like the pellets of a shotgun.  This is frequently misspelled in the contemporary newspaper articles as “cannister.”

Canteen:  Round tin or wood container used to carry water with a strap to be carried over the shoulder of soldiers.

Cap:  Essential to firing a percussion rifle-musket, a cap is a tiny brass shell that holds fulminate of mercury.  The cap is place on the gun so that when a trigger is pulled, the hammer falls on the cap.  The chemical in the cap ignites and flame shoots into the chamber that holds the gunpowder.  This ignites the powder and the blast shoots the bullet out of the barrel.

Carbine:  A breech-loading, single-shot, rifle-barreled gun primarily used by cavalry troops.  A carbine’s barrel is several inches shorter than a regular rifle-musket.

Cartridge:  Roll of thin paper which held a small amount of gun powder in the bottom of a ball or bullet in the top.  A soldier needed to tear off the top of the cartridge in order to fire his weapon—part of the nine steps to fire a muzzle loading gun (or five to fire a breech loading gun.)

Casemate:  (pronounced kays-mayt)  A sturdily built, arched masonry chamber enclosed by a fortification’s ramparts or walls.  Casemates were often used to protect gun positions, powder magazines, storerooms, or living quarters.  In permanent fortifications they were vaulted and originally the term referred to a vaulted chamber in a fortress.

Casualty:  A soldier that was wounded, killed, or missing in action.

Cavalry:  A branch of the military mounted on horseback.  Cavalry units in the Civil War could move quickly from place to place or go on scouting expeditions on horseback, but usually fought on foot.  Their main job was to gather information about enemy movements.  Until the spring of 1863, the Confederate cavalry force was far superior to its Union counterpart.

Charge:  To rush towards the enemy.

Chevaux-de-Frise:  (pronounced sheh-VOH-de-freez)  A defensive obstacle constructed by using a long horizontal beam pierced with diagonal rows of sharpened spikes.  When several cheval-de-frise (singular, pronounced she-VAL-de-freez) were bolted together they created an effective barrier for roads and fortifications.

Colors:  A flag identifying a regiment or army.  The “color bearer” was the soldier who carried the flag in battle, which was considered a great honor.

A 10-Inch Columbiad Mounted as a Mortar (

A 10-Inch Columbiad Mounted as a Mortar (“Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War”)

Columbiad:  (pronounced cull-UHM-bee-ad)
A smoothbore heavy artillery which lobbed shot and shell; used in coastal fortifications.  By the end of the Civil War, the columbiad was rendered obsolete by rifled, banded artillery.

Commutation:  Stipulation that allowed certain draftees to pay a fee in order to avoid military service. Because the fee was higher than the average worker’s annual salary, this provision angered less-wealthy citizens on both sides of the war, as both the Union and Confederate governments adopted it.

Company:  A group of 50 to 100 soldiers led by a captain.
10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army.

Confederacy:  Also called the South or the Confederate States of America, the Confederacy incorporated the states that seceded from the United States of America to form their own nation. Confederate states were: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Confederate:  Loyal to the Confederacy Also Southern or Rebel.

Conscript:  A draftee. The military draft became a necessity on both sides of the conflict. While many conscripts were excellent soldiers, veterans often considered draftees to be inferior, unreliable soldiers. Towns often posted pleas for volunteers in order to “avoid the draft”.

Contrabands:  Escaped slaves who fled to the Union lines for protection.

Copperhead:  Term for a Northerner who opposed the war effort.

Corduroy roadCorduroy Road:  A type of road made by placing logs perpendicular to the direction of the road, usually over a low or swampy area.  This Civil War-era illustration is from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a publication very similar to Harper’s Weekly.

Corps:  (pronounced kohr or korz) A very large group of soldiers led by a major (Union) or a lieutenant general (Confederate) and designated by Roman numerals (such as XI Corps). Confederate corps were often called by the name of their commanding general (as in Jackson’s Corps).
1 company = 50 to 100 men, 10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army.

Cotton-Clad:  Gunboats using stacked cotton bales to protect themselves from enemy fire.

Coup de Main:  (pronounced koo-duh-mahn) A French term used to describe a quick, vigorous attack that surprises the enemy.

Courier:  (pronounced KUHR-ee-r) A soldier who served the officers of his regiment by carrying mail or messages.


Dahlgren Guns:  Bronze boat howitzers and rifles used by the navies which were useful in river operations. They were named after Admiral John. A. Dahlgren, their inventor.

Defeat in Detail:  Defeating a military force unit by unit. This occurred when units were unable to support one another, often because of distance.

Defilade:  (pronounced DEH-fih-lade) To arrange walls, embankments and other features of a fortification or field work so that the enemy cannot make an accurate shot inside.

Democratic Party:  The major political party in America most sympathetic to states right and willing to tolerate the spread of slavery to the territories. Democrats opposed a strong Federal government. Most Southern men were Democrats before the War.

Demonstration:  A military movement which is used to draw the enemy’s attention, distracting the enemy so that an attack can be made in another location.

a small two-man tent or dog tent as the soldiers called them. First introduced in 1862, every Union soldier was issued one for use during active campaign and the men joked that only a dog could crawl under it and stay dry from the rain.

Dog tent:  A small two-man tent or dog tent as the soldiers called them. First introduced in 1862, every Union soldier was issued one for use during active campaign and the men joked that only a dog could crawl under it and stay dry from the rain. Today known as a “pup” tent, during the Civil War the tent was known as a “dog” tent and rifle-muskets were used as poles.

Drill:  To practice marching, military formations and the steps in firing and handling one’s weapon.

Dropsy:  (pronounced drop-see) Nineteenth-century term for the condition known today as edema. Fluid builds up in the tissues and causes limbs to swell up horribly.

Dysentery:  (pronounced DISS-ehn-terr-ee) Intestinal disease causing sever diarrhea. Dysentery was a leading cause of deaths by disease.


Earthwork:  A field fortification (such as a trench or mound) made of earth. Earthworks were used to protect troops during battles or sieges, to protect artillery batteries, and to slow an advancing enemy.

Eastern Theater:  Included the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and the coastal fortifications and seaports of North Carolina.  The Eastern Theater was the venue for several major campaigns launched by the Union Army of the Potomac to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia; many of these were frustrated by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.   See also Theaters

Echelon:  An echelon formation is a military formation in which the units are arranged diagonally. Each unit is stationed behind and to the right, or behind and to the left, of the unit ahead. The name of the formation comes from the French word échelon, meaning the rungs of ladder, which describes the shape that this formation has when viewed from above or below. En echelon means in echelon formation.

Emancipation:  Freedom from slavery.

Embrasure:  an opening with sides flaring outward in a wall or parapet of a fortification usually for allowing the firing of cannon.

En MasseEn masse means in a mass or group, all together; numerous people or objects.

Enfilade:  (pronounced en-fuh-leyd) To fire along the length of an enemy’s battle line.

Entrenchments:  Long cuts dug out of the earth (trenches) with dirt piled up into a mound in front; used for defense.


Farina :  A cereal food, frequently described as mild-tasting, usually served warm, made from cereal grains (usually semolina). Wheat farina is often cooked in boiling water and served warm for breakfast, or cooked with milk and made into semolina pudding. Contemporary brands we are familiar with are Cream of Wheat and Malt-O-Meal.

Fascine:  (pronounced fah-seen) A tightly bound bundle of straight sticks used to reinforce earthworks, trenches or lunettes. Fascines could also be used to make revetments, field magazines, fill material and blinds.

Federal:  Loyal to the government of the United States. Also know as Union, Yankee, or Northern.

Feint:  (pronounced feynt) To pretend to attack in one direction while the real attack is directed somewhere else.

Fieldworks:  Temporary fortifications put up by an army in the field.

Fire-Eaters:  An unorganized group of extremist pro-slavery Southern politicians in the 1850s, so dubbed by northerners.  They wanted to re-open the slave trade and urged the separation of southern states from the Union.  They materially contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.  Leading Fire-Eaters included Edmund Ruffin, Robert Rhett, Louis T. Wigfall, William Lowndes Yancey, John J. Pettus, and Roger Atkinson Pryor.

Flank:  Used as a noun, a “flank” is the end (or side) of a military position, also called a “wing”. An unprotected flank is “in the air”, while a protected flank is a “refused flank”. Used as a verb, “to flank” is to move around and gain the side of an enemy position, avoiding frontal assault.

Flying Battery:  A system where several horse-drawn cannons would ride along the battle front, stop and set up the guns, fire, limber up, and ride to another position. This practice gave the impression that many guns were in use when only a few were actually being used.

Fortification:  Structure that makes a defensive position stronger, such as high mounds of earth to protect cannons or spiky breastworks to slow an enemy charge. Man-made fortifications can be permanent (mortar or stone) or temporary (wood and soil). Natural fortifications can include waterways, forests, hills, mountains, swamps, and marshes.

Furlough:  A leave of duty, granted by a superior officer. The furloughed soldier carried papers which described his appearance, his until, when he left, and when he was due to return. Furlough papers also contained a warning that failure to return on time would cause the soldier to be “considered a deserter”.


Gabions:  (pronounced gey-bee-en) Cylindrical wicker baskets which were filled with rocks and dirt, often used to build field fortifications or temporary fortified positions.



Grape/Grapeshot:  A cluster of small iron balls or other small projectiles, often contained in a canvas bag, that scatter when fired from a cannon. Also small cannon balls used as ammunition in siege guns at medium range that were tied together in bundles that looked like grapes, giving the ammunition it’s name. When the grapeshot was fired out of the siege guns, the small cannon balls separated in mid-air to make multiple bullets.

Garrison:  A group of soldiers stationed at a military post.

Graybacks:  A slang term for lice, or occasionally an offensive Yankee slang term from Confederate soldiers.

Greek Fire:  An incendiary weapon developed by the Byzantine Empire in the 7th Century. The term has been used generally since the Crusades for any kind of incendiary mixture.

Greenbacks:  Paper currency which began to circulate in the North after February 1862 with the passage of the Legal Tender Act. The bills were called “greenbacks” because of their color.

Green Troops:  Phrase used to describe soldiers who were either new to the military or had never fought in a battle before.

Guidon:  (pronounced gayhd-n) a small flag, one borne by a military unit as a marker (i.e. cavalry guidon)

Gutta percha:  A tough plastic substance from the latex of several Malaysian trees that resembles rubber but contains more resin. It was introduced to the West in the 1840s and was used especially as insulation.


Hardtack:  Hard crackers often issued to soldiers of both sides during the Civil War. They were made of flour, water, and salt. They were simple and inexpensive to make in very large quantities, however, they became almost rock solid once they went stale, hence the name “hardtack”.

Havelock:  (pronounced hav-loc) A white cloth cover that went over a soldier’s kepi, and had a long back that covered a soldier’s neck and shoulders. Although it saw use in the early stages of the war, soldiers quickly learned that it cut off circulation around the head and face, leading to the eventual abandonment of the havelock.

Haversack:  Small canvas bag, about one square foot, used to carry a soldier’s food. Typically, these bags were painted with black tar make them waterproof.

Home Guards:  The Home Guards were local militias made of volunteers during the American Civil War.  The men trained for active military service and were prepared for positions in the U. S. military upon muster.  Home Guards were mainly used for suppressing southern sympathizers in the Union.  This was done by have patriotic public displays during the week.  The Home Guards are credited with being the main force in deterring and suppressing the secession movement in the north.

Hors de combat:  Hors de combat is a French expression, literally meaning “out of the fight,” and generally meaning a soldier who is incapable of waging war, who is out of action due to injury, sickness, or damage.

Housewife:  Small sewing kit soldiers used to repair their garments.

Howitzer:  A cannon which fired hollow projectiles and was generally lighter and shorter tan its solid-shot cousins. A howitzer’s projectiles had a smaller powder charge. The canister projectiles contained more small balls than other types of canister. Howitzers ere useful in defending fortifications and causing disorder within an attacking force.


In Detail (Attack):  To destroy the enemy piece by piece–by attacking smaller segments at one time–instead of attacking the entire force at once.

Indian Territory:  The area of Oklahoma (except for the panhandle).

Industry:  Manufacturing goods from raw materials, such as cloth from cotton or machine parts from iron.

Infantry:  A branch of the military in which soldiers traveled and fought on foot.

Infernal Machine:  A term of contempt for torpedoes, either land or water type.  This term was also used to describe the Confederate vessel H. L. Hunley—the first successful submarine.

inst.:   Abbreviation for the Latin phrase instante mense, which means “this month.”  For example, in this sentence written on September 4, “We started from the Ferry at 6 a.m. of the 2d inst. and proceeded in the direction of Atlanta,” the date referred to is the 2nd of September.

Instant: A term referred to a particular day in the same month of a letter of report. For example: Robert E. Lee’s report concerning the attack at Harpers Ferry, written on October 19, 1859, states that Lee arrived on the “night of the 17th instant”. The “17th instant” referring to October 17, 1859.

Insult:  A sudden, open, unconcealed attack upon a fortified position with the intent of capturing it before its defenders could mount an effective defense.

Interior Lines:  A military strategy which holds that the fastest, most efficient maneuvers, transportation, and communication are conducted within an enclosed geographic area as opposed to outside the geographic area.

Ironclad (or iron-clad):  A ship protected by iron armor.


Juggernaut (pronounced juhg-er-nawt):  An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path.


Kepi (pronounced KEH-peeh):  Cap worn by Civil War soldiers; more prevalent among Union soldiers.


Limber:  A two-wheeled cart that carried one ammunition chest for an artillery piece. The artillery piece could be attache to the limber, which would allow both to be pulled by a team of horses. Also a verb: The practice of attaching a piece of artillery to the limber that holds its ammunition.

Litter:  A stretcher which was carried by two people and used to transport wounded soldiers.

Long Roll:  A long, continuous drum call which commanded a regiment to assemble.

Lost Cause:  Cultural movement in which Southern states attempted to cope – mentally and emotionally – with devastating defeat and Northern military occupation after the Civil War. The movement idealized life in the antebellum South, loudly protested against Reconstruction policies, and exalted Confederate figures such as “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

Lower Seaboard Theater and Gulf Approach:  Encompassed major military and naval operations that occurred near the coastal areas in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, as well as southern part of the Mississippi River (Port Hudson and south).  Inland operations are included in the Western Theater or Trans-Mississippi Theater, depending on whether they were east or west of the Mississippi River.  Coastal operations in Georgia, as the culmination of Sherman’s March to the Sea, are included in the Western Theater.  See also Theaters

Lunette (pronounced loo-net):  A fortification shaped roughly like a half-moon. It presented two or three sides to the enemy but the rear was open to friendly lines.


Mason-Dixon line:  A boundary surveyed in the 1760s that ran between Pennsylvania to the North and Deleware, Maryland and (West) Virginia to the South. It became a symbolic division between free states and slave states.

Massacre:  The cruel killing of helpless or unresisting people (e.g., women and children).

Militia:  A fortified location where powder or supplies were stored.

Minnie or Minié Ball or Bullet (pronounced min-ee or min-ee-ay):  The standard infantry bullet of the Civil War. The bullet was designed for muzzle-loading rifle-muskets. It was invented by two Frenchmen, Henri-Gustave Delvigne and Claude-Étienne Minié. It was small enough to load quickly, and had a special feature that let it take advantage of a rifled-barrel. When the rifle-musket was fired, expanding gas from the gunpowder blast was caught in the hollow base of the bullet, forcing it against the rifled grooves inside the barrel.

Monitor:  Originally the U.S.S. Monitor, the first ironclad warship in the United States Navy, commanded by Admiral John L. Worden. The vessel had a large, round gun turret on top of a flat raft-like bottom, which caused some spectators to describe it as a “cheesebox on a raft”. The first engagement between ironclads occurred on March 8-9, 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads, VA, when the U.S.S. Monitor fought with the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimack). Eventually a “monitor” became the official term for an entire class of warships modeled after the original U.S.S. Monitor.

Mortar:  An unrifled artillery gun which was designed to launch shells over walls and enemy fortifications. The most famous Civil War mortar is the “Dictator” —a mortar which was mounted on a railroad car and used during the siege of Petersburg. With its 13 inch bore it was capable of launching two hundred pound shells.

Mote:  “So mote it be” is a ritual phrase used by Freemasons; it means “so may it be,” or “so must it be.”

Mudsill:  A person from the lower class.

Musket:  A smoothbore firearm fired from the shoulder. Thrust from exploding powder, it shoots the bullet forward.

Muster:  to formally enroll in the army or to call roll.

Muzzle-loading:  Muzzle-loading muskets or rifle-muskets had to be loaded from the end by putting the gunpowder and the bullet or ball down the barrel.


Napoleon Gun:  Another name for the Model 1857 gun howitzer. This lighter, more maneuverable field artillery piece fired 12 pound projectiles and was very popular with both Federal and Confederate armies.

Navy:  A branch of military using ships to conduct warfare. During the Civil War, “blue water” ships cruised the oceans and “brown water” boats floated up and down the rivers.

Niter:  The mineral form of potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, which is one of the major components of gunpowder; also used to pickle meat and in fertilizers.

Nom-de-guerre (pronounced nahm-duh-gair):  French for “war name.”  A nickname earned in battle, such as “Stonewall” Jackson or “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

North:  Also know as the Union or the United States of the North.  Remained loyal to the Federal government during the Civil War.  Northern states were: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. West Virginia became a Northern state in 1863, and California and Oregon were officially Northern states, but had little direct involvement in the War.


Offensive:  Actively attacking an opponent.

Offing:  Naval expression meaning near at hand; it is the part of the deep sea visible from the shore, but is beyond the anchoring area.

Ordnance:  A term used for military supplies, such as weaponry and ammunition.


Pacific Coast Theater:  Military operations in the United States on the Pacific Ocean and in the states and Territories west of the Continental Divide: California, Oregon, and Nevada, the territories of Washington, Utah, and later Idaho.  The operations of Union volunteer troop detachments—primarily from California, some from Oregon, and a few companies from Washington Territory—were directed mostly against Indians in the theater.  Union and Confederate regular forces did not meet directly within the Pacific Department except in New Mexico Territory.  See also Theaters

Confederate palisades near Atlanta, Georgia, from the Library of Congress

Confederate palisades near Atlanta, Georgia (Library of Congress)

Palisades:  Typically a fence or wall made from wooden stakes or tree trunks and used as a defensive structure or enclosure. The trunks were sharpened or pointed at the top, and were driven into the ground and sometimes reinforced with additional construction. As a defensive structure, palisades were often used in conjunction with earthworks. Palisades were an excellent option for small forts or other hastily constructed fortifications. Sometimes called a stakewall or a paling.

Parole:  A pledge by a prisoner-of-war or a defeated soldier not to bear arms. When prisoners were returned to their own side during the War (in exchange for men their side had captured) the parole was no longer in effect and they were allowed to pick up their weapons and fight. When the South lost the War and the Confederate armies gave their parole, they promised never to bear weapons against the Union again.

Parrott gun:  A rifled artillery piece with a reinforcing band at the rear, or breech. Parrot guns were used by both the Army and the Navy, and ranged from 10-pounders to 300-pounders. They were named after their designer, Robert Parker Parrott.

Peculiar Institution:  Another term for slavery in the South.

Percussion Arm:  A musket or rifle-musket that requires a capt to fire. A tiny cap is placed on the gun so that when a trigger is pulled, the hammer strikes the cap. The chemical in the cap (fulminate of mercury) ignites and flame shoots into the chamber that holds the gunpowder. This ignites the powder and the blast shoots the bullet out of the barrel.

Picket:  Soldiers posted on guard ahead of a main force.  Pickets included about 40 or 50 men each.  Several pickets would form a rough line in front of the main army’s camp.  In case of enemy attack, the pickets usually would have time to warn the rest of the force.

Pontoon Bridge (pronouced pawn-TOON):  A floating bridge which was constructed by anchoring a series of large, flat-bottomed boats across a waterway and then laying wooden planks across them. The planks (the “chess”) were anchored by side rails and then covered with a layer of soil to protect it and to dampen sounds. Pontoon bridges were extremely important to the outcome of several battles, including Fredericksburg.

Popular Sovereignty (pronounced sov-rin-tee):  This doctrine was prominent during the debate over slavery in the territories. Popular sovereignty said that the people of each territory should be able to decide for themselves if slavery should be allowed in their territory when it became a state.

Powder Monkey:  A sailor, or sometimes a child, who carried explosives from the ship’s magazine to the ship’s guns.

Private:  The lowest rank in the army.

Proximo:  Latin, meaning occurring in the next month after the present.


Quaker Guns:  Large logs painted to look like cannons; used to fool the enemy into thinking a position was stronger than it really was.

Quartermaster:  Officer held responsible for supplying clothing, supplies, and food for the troops.


Rampart:  A large earthen mound used to shield the inside of a fortified position from artillery fire and infantry assault. Occasionally ramparts might be constructed of other materials, such as sandbags.

Ramrod:  Long, cylindrical metal rod used to push the cartridge down the barrel of a musket in preparation for firing.

Ratify:  To formally approve or sanction.

Rebel Yell:  A high-pitched cry that Confederate soldiers would shout when attacking. First heard at First Manassas (First Bull Run). Union troops found the eerie noise unnerving.

Rebel:  A soldier or person loyal to the Confederate States; also known as Southern or Confederate.

Reconnoiter/Reconnoitre:  To make a reconnaissance, survey, or inspection of an enemy’s position or region of land to gain information for military purposes. The first spelling is how it is spelled today in the United States; the second spelling is from the now-obsolete French spelling, reconnoître, and seems to have been the popular way of spelling it in Civil War-era newspapers.

Reconstruction:  A term used to describe the time in American history directly after the civil War during which the South was “reconstructed” by the North after its loss in the war.

Recruits:  The term for new soldiers.

Redan (pronounced ri-dan):  A fortification with two parapets or low walls whose faces unite to form a salient angle towards the enemy. That is, they form a point that juts out past the rest of the defensive line.

Redoubt (pronounced rih-dowt):  An enclosed field work—without redans—that had several sides and was used to protect a garrison from attacks from several directions.  While redoubts could be very useful, one key weakness was that each protruding angle was a salient.  This meant that the redoubt would be susceptible to enfilading fire.  A redoubt could also extend from a permanent fortress.

Reinforcements:  Troops sent to strengthen a fighting force by adding an additional number of fresh soldiers.

Regiment:  The basic unit of the Civil War soldiers, usually made up of 1,000 to 1,500 men.  Regiments were designated by state name, a number, and type of unit, as in 20th Wisconsin Infantry, 4th Wisconsin Cavalry.  Wisconsin regiments, when first formed, started with 101 men.
1 company = 50 to 100 men, 10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army.

Republican Party:  A political party created in the 1850s to prevent the spread of slavery to the territories. Eventually Republicans came to oppose the entire existence of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. Very few Southerners were Republicans.

Reserves(s):  Part or parts of the army which were withheld from fighting during a particular battle but ready and available to fight if necessary.

Revetment:  A structure built to hold either natural or man-made embankments in position. Revetments could be made of items such as sandbags, fascines, gabions, brick, stone, and so on.

Revolver:  A handheld firearm with a chamber to hold multiple bullets (usually six). The chamber turns so that each bulled can be fired in succession without reloading.

Revenue Cutter:  This term applies to fast ships that were used to patrol the seas and Great Lakes to prevent smuggling and impose importation and custom fees. Revenue cutters would go on to be the United States Coast Guard.

Rifle-musket:  The common weapon of the Civil War infantryman, it was a firearm fired from the shoulder. It differed from a regular musket by the grooves cut into the inside of the barrel called rifling. When the exploding powder thrusts the bullet forward, the grooves in the barrel make it spin. Rifle-muskets were more accurate and had a longer range than smoothbore weapons.

Rifle Pit:  Similar to the modern “foxhole”. Rifle pits were trenches with earth mounded up at the end as protection from enemy fire. A soldier lay in the trench and fired from a prone position.

Rifled or Rifling:  When the barrel of a gun has grooves cut into the inside of the barrel for longer range and more accurate firing.

Little Dolly Bump cannon, a Rodman gun, in the Prescott City Park, courtesy of the Pierce County Historical Association

Little Dolly Bump cannon, a Rodman gun, in the Prescott City Park, courtesy of the Pierce County Historical Association

Rodman Gun:  A series of columbiads designed by Union artilleryman Thomas Jackson Rodman (1815-1871). These guns could fire both shot and shell, and were intended to be mounted in seacoast fortifications. They were built in 8-inch, 10-inch, 13-inch, 15-inch, and 20-inch bore. Rodman guns differed from all previous artillery because they were hollow cast, a new technology that Rodman developed that resulted in cast iron guns that were much stronger than their predecessors.

Rout:  A crushing defeat where the losers often run from the field.


Salient (pronounced SAY-lee-uhnt):  A part of a defensive line of works or fortification that juts toward the enemy, out from the main line. Salients can be very vulnerable to attacks on multiple sides.

Salt Pork:  Pork product similar to bacon because it is made by curing pork bellies in salt. This curing process allowed the pork to last a very long time without refrigeration. As a result, salt pork became a common food issued to the soldiers during the Civil War.

Sap Roller:  A very large, bullet-resistant gabion used to protect soldiers from enemy fire as they constructed trenches.

Scurvy (pronounced SKUR-vee):  A disease caused by lack of ascorbic acid obtained from fruits and vegetables.  The main symptoms included spongy gums, loose teeth, and bleeding into the skin and mucous membranes.

Secession (pronounced see-sesh-uhn):  Withdrawal from the Federal Government of the United States. Southern states, feeling persecuted by the North, seceded by voting to separate from the Union. Southerners felt this was perfectly legal, but Unionists saw it as rebellion.

Sectionalism:  Promoting the interests of a section or region, such as North or South, instead of the entire country.

Sentry (pronounced SEHN-tree):  A soldier standing guard or keeping watch.

Seven-Thirty, or 7-30, Loans:  The Union government financed war-related expenditures with the help of short-term loans at the rate of 7.30 percent, a low enough denomination bond for the average man to purchase. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase encouraged purchases with bond payments that could be made in monthly installments. Over the course of the War, $800,000,000 worth of three-year 7-30 bonds were sold.

Shebangs:  (pronounced sheh-bangs) The crude shelters Civil War prisoners of war built to protect themselves from the sun and rain.

Shinplaster:  A piece of paper money of small denomination issued by the government, especially from 1862 to 1878.

Shoddy:  Term for cheap, poorly made cloth which was used early in the war to make Federal uniforms. The cloth fell apart very quickly. Eventually the term meant inferior, poorly made items.

Shot:  A solid, round projectile that is shot from a cannon.

Shell:  A hollow projectile shot from a cannon. A shell was filled with powder and lit by a fuse when it was fired. Shells exploded when their fuse burned down to the level of the powder. Depending on the length of the fuse, artillery men could decide when they wanted the shell to burst.

sic:  A Latin term meaning “thus.”  It is used to indicate that something incorrectly written is intentionally being left as it was in the original; the mistake was made by the original writer and not by the transcriber.  Sic is usually italicized and always surrounded by square brackets [sic] to indicate that it was not part of the original.  It is placed right after the error.

Siege (pronounced seej):  Blocking the supply lines and escape routes of a city to force it to surrender. A siege usually meant one army was trapped on a city, slowly running out of food and fresh water, with the opposing army camped outside. Famous sieges were held at Petersburg, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson.

Siegelines:  Lines of works and fortifications that are built by both armies during a siege. The defenders build earthworks to strengthen their position inside a fort or city against assault while the besieging army constructs fortifications to protect siege guns and soldiers from sharpshooters inside the city.

Skirmish:  A minor fight.

Slavery:  A state of bondage in which African Americans, and some Native Americans, were owned by other people, usually white, and forced to labor on their behalf.

Smoothbore:  A gun with a smooth gun barrel.  This type of gun was used before rifled guns were developed.  Although smoothbore guns were not as accurate, there were still plenty of them in use during the Civil War.

So mote it be:  “So mote it be” is a ritual phrase used by Freemasons; it means “so may it be,” or “so must it be.”

Sortie:  A type of counter-attack used to disrupt the enemy’s attack or siege of a fortification, causing the enemy to divert some of its resources away from the initial attack or siege.

South:  Also called the Confederacy, The Confederate States of America, or the Rebel States. The South incorporated the states that seceded from the United States of America to form their own nation. Southern states were: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Spike:  To make an artillery piece unusable so that it could not be used by the enemy if captured.

Staid:  Today it means sedate, respectable, and unadventurous.  In Civil War time, it seems to also have been an acceptable way to spell “stayed.”

Standard:  A flag or banner carried into battle on a pole.

States Rights:  A doctrine that held the powers of the individual states as greater than the powers of the Federal Government. States Rights meant that the Federal Government held its power only through the consent of the states and that any powers not specifically given to the Federal Government remained in control of the states.

Stockade:  A line of tall, stout posts securely set either as a defense, to keep the enemy out, or as a pen to keep prisoners in.

Surrender:  To admit defeat and give up in the face of overwhelming odds. Most defeated generals were able to negotiate surrender terms. These might include items like parole instead of prison for the soldiers or letting officers keep their sidearms.

SutlerA sutler, or victualer, is a civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters. Sutlers sold wares from the back of a wagon or a temporary tent, traveling with an army or to remote military outposts.


Territory:  Land within the mainland boundaries of the country that had not yet become a state by the year 1861.  The Nevada, Utah, and Colorado Territories had basically the same boundaries the modern states have; Washington Territory encompassed the States of Washington and Idaho; Dakota Territory is now the states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the northern part of Wyoming; Nebraska Territory made up the southern part of Wyoming and the state of Nebraska; New Mexico Territory included the states of Arizona and New Mexico; and the remaining unorganized land, also called Indian Territory, filled the approximate boundaries of Oklahoma.

Theater:  Region or area of war where the fighting takes place.  The Civil War had an Eastern Theater, a Trans-Mississippi, and a Western Theater, plus a Lower Seaboard/Gulf Theater and a Pacific Coast Theater.

Torpedoes:  Known today as mines. Civil War torpedoes mostly used by Confederates. Sometimes they were buried in the ground in the enemy’s path to explode when stepped on. Mostly they were used as water defenses; floating just below the surface and exploding when the hull of a ship brushed up against it.

Torpedo boats:  Small submersible vessels with long wooden spars mounted on the bow for ramming enemy ships. Torpedoes were lashed to the tip of the spar to explode on impact.

Total War:  A new way of conducting war, appearing during the Civil War. Instead of focusing on the military targets, armies destroyed homes and crops to demoralize and undermine the civilian base of the enemy’s war efforts. (For example: Sherman in Georgia or Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley)

Trans-Mississippi Theater:  The major military and naval operations west of the Mississippi River:  Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and parts of Louisiana; the area excluded the states and territories bordering the Pacific Ocean.  Important for us is that the Trans-Mississippi Theater included the Daktoa War of 1862 (in Minnesota),  Sully’s Expedition Against the Sioux in Dakota Territory, and other Operations Against the Sioux in North Dakota.  See also Theaters

Traverse:  A mound of earth used to protect gun positions from explosion or to defilade the inside of a field work or fortification.

Typhoid:  Bacterial disease causing fever, diarrhea, headache, enlargement of spleen, extreme physical exhaustion, and collapse in soldiers.


ult.:  Abbreviation for the Latin phrase ultimo mense, which means “last month.”  For example, in this sentence written by Edwin Levings on September 18th, “We read your letter of the 29th ult., last night,” the date he is referring to is August 29th.

Union:  Also called the North or the United States. A portion of the country that remained loyal to the Federal government during the Civil War.  Union States were:  Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  West Virginia became a Northern state in 1863.  California and Oregon were officially Northern but had little direct involvement in the War.

U. S. Christian Commission:  An organization established in 1861 for the relief of Union Soldiers; the Christian Commission provided food, Bibles, and free writing materials to the soldiers to encourage them in good moral behavior.

U. S. C. T. or United States Colored Troops:  Federal Army regiments composed of African-American soldiers.  They were established by General Order Number 143, issued May 22, 1863, and included infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments.  While the soldiers themselves were African-American, officers were white.  Until 1864, African-American soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts.  The most famous USCT regiment was the 54th Massachusetts, composed of free Northern men, while the 33rd USCT regiment has the distinction of being the first federally authorized regiment.  Composed of freed slaves, it was originally called the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry.

U. S. Sanitary Commission:  A government agency created on June 18, 1861, whose purpose was to coordinate female volunteers who were supporting the Federal Army. These women collected over $25 million in donations from “Sanitary Fairs” and other fundraisers. The volunteers also made Uniforms and bandages, worked as cooks, and nursed the sick and wounded. The leadership of the program was largely male.


Vedette or Vidette:  A mounted sentry stationed in advance of a picket line.

Viz.:  Viz.—with or without the period—is an abbreviation of videlicet, which itself is a contraction from Latin of videre licet meaning “it is permitted to see.”  Although both forms survived in English, viz. is far more common than videlicet.  Viz. is usually read aloud as “that is,” “namely,” or “to wit” and frequently preceded by a colon, which is then followed by a list or description.

Volunteer:  Men joined the armies on both sides because they wanted to fight for their cause.  Most Civil War soldiers, especially at the beginning of the War, were volunteers and the regiments raised by the various states were called Volunteer Regiments, or simply Volunteers.


West Point:  The United States Military Academy, located at West Point, New York, is frequently called simply “West Point.”  It was the military school for more than 1,000 officers in both the Union and Confederate armies.

Western Theater:  Originally represented the area east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachian Mountains.  It excluded operations against the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard, but as the war progressed and William T. Sherman’s Union armies moved southeast from Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1864 and 1865, the definition of the theater expanded to encompass their operations in Georgia and the Carolinas.  For operations west of the Mississippi River see Trans-Mississippi Theater.  See also Theaters

Whig Party:  A political party generally against slavery and its expansion into the territories.  This party was basically swallowed up by the Democrat and Republican parties by the time of the Civil War.

Works:  Fortified structures designed to strengthen a position in battle. This includes earthworks, fieldworks, entrenchments, siege lines, etc.


Yankee:  A Northerner; someone loyal to the Federal government of the United States.  A slang term given by the Confederate soldiers.  Also known as Union, Federal or Northern.

“United States Zouave Cadets, Chicago” sheet music cover, ca. 1860 (Smithsonian Institution)


Zouave (pronounced zoo-ahv or zwahv):  A regiment characterized by its soldiers’ bright, colorful uniforms that usually included baggy trousers, a vest, and a fez in different combinations of red, white, and blue. American zouave units were found in both Union and Confederate armies.  They were modeled after French African troops who were known for their bravery and marksmanship.

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